SANTA FE, N.M., August 14, 2016 – Based, with occasional variations, on Shakespeare’s immortal romantic tragedy of two star-crossed young lovers, French composer Charles Gounod’s operatic masterpiece, “Roméo et Juliette” is about as voluptuously romantic as 19th century opera gets in the Santa Fe Opera’s intriguingly updated production.
The original “Romeo” was set by Shakespeare more or less in the Renaissance period. Gounod largely relied on Shakespeare’s original for his operatic version while adding little anachronistic touches in the Gallic opera tradition. To address this dichotomy, Stephen Lawless and Ashley Martin-Davis—this production’s stage director and set designer respectively—re-imagined the opera as taking place here in the U.S. during the Civil War.
The period costuming and imagery initially seem jarring, and phrases in the libretto here and there simply don’t match what we’re seeing on stage. Nevertheless, SFO’s update is surprisingly effective for the most part, recalling in some ways the thematic abstraction also employed in the company’s current production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
The dominating, omnipresent image in SFO’s “Giovanni” was a gigantic, blob-like Death’s Head sculpture, an ominous omen of Fate that dominated each scene of that production from beginning to end. Similarly in SFO’s “Roméo et Juliette” the production is trapped throughout within the confines of a black granite or perhaps marble mausoleum with floor-to-ceiling burial chambers stacked like file drawers, most with names, dates and inscriptions some still blank and awaiting an occupant.
Thematically, the mausoleum is meant to reflect a Civil War or perhaps even a contemporary military burial chamber already loaded with dozens of young soldiers, Union and Confederate alike—paralleling the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues—all cut down in the prime of life in often senseless battles.
In effect, this setting precisely reflects the equally senseless ongoing battle raging between the Capulets and the Montagues in Shakespeare’s original drama, an out-of-control murder-fest that eventually ensnares the Bard’s eternally appealing pair of young lovers, leading them to a tragic end that can still bring out the handkerchiefs even today.
Gounod’s opera is constructed as a frame tale that opens with a funeral scene for Tybalt and concludes with a closing eulogy for Romeo and his Juliet. All three are united in death even as they were—uncomfortably—in life.
In between both these events, love blossoms, battles are fought and life ebbs and flows. But every action in this production is contained within those black, foreboding mausoleum walls which enfold the opera’s large cast of principals, chorus members and dancers within the gloom and doom that enfolds this classic tale of love and tragedy.
Fortunately, relieving at least some of the gloom are Mr. Martin-Davis’ bright, colorful and more-or-less Civil War style costume designs, save for the rather outlandish outfits worn by the plucky Stéphano (Emily Fons in the production we attended) and his fellow pages in Act III.
Also creating numerous variations are the chambers and doorways that suddenly emerge from nowhere from the seemingly solid mausoleum walls, with each appearance creating an element of surprise.
SFO’s “Roméo et Juliette” contrasts considerably with the unexpectedly fine Virginia Opera “Roméo” we reviewed in February of this year. A co-production with four smaller opera companies, Virginia Opera’s colorful period production was quite lavish and included an exceptional Romeo and Juliet (Jonathan Boyd and Marie-Eve Munger) who together generated incredible romantic chemistry.
The chemistry between SFO’s star-crossed lovers—tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez—was rather more refined, though their singing possessed greater power and breadth. Mr. Costello in particular, comes across in SFO’s production as a youthful, almost winsome Romeo, but also surprises us with his powerful, substantial tenor delivery—perhaps the most vocally impeccable, sweeping interpretations of this role we have yet heard.
For her part, Ms. Pérez proved an excellent match for Mr. Costello, also unveiling a substantial if somewhat less subtle instrument. The interesting twist in her portrayal of Gounod’s Juliet was the saucy, almost defiant approach she took toward her role. We were initially taken back, but then delighted in Ms. Pérez’ bold originality.
One other significant difference in SFO’s take on this opera: The Virginia Opera and other productions we’ve seen tend to cut some or all of the Act I dance material. Dances and ballets were an extraneous but often lovely extravagance 19th century French audiences demanded in their operas, yet were arguably an add-on feature that’s rendered many otherwise wonderful Gallic operas too expensive for modern companies to produce.
SFO hit upon a delightful compromise in this regard, confining the early dance sequence to a pair of accomplished ballerinas (Beth Miller and Susan Vishmid), giving us an opportunity to hear the exquisite music Gounod composed for his dancers without having to hire an entire troupe.
Another interesting twist in the current production: Bass Raymond Aceto’s interesting portrayal of Frère Laurent (Friar Lawrence) as a Civil War Army priest-chaplain and surgeon. Mr. Aceto’s priest-physician is rougher and less-intimidated by authority than Shakespeare’s original priest, reflective of his character’s defiant American individualism in this production. The approach works quite well, buttressed by Mr. Aceto’s no-nonsense vocal delivery.
Other key secondary roles were consistently on point, including Elliot Madore’s strong Mercutio, Deborah Nansteel’s more aggressive take on Juliet’s nurse Gertrude, Cooper Nolan’s seething Tybalt, Tim Mix’s implacable Capulet and Soloman Howard’s somber turn as the furious yet saddened Duke who has grown weary of all the family violence.
The choral and orchestral work in this production was crisp and persuasive throughout, and, as in “Vanessa” and “Girl of the Golden West” (reviewed earlier) the SFO Orchestra, led by chief conductor Harry Bicket, once again demonstrated its mastery of opera’s Romantic Era throughout.
Extra points for the great Act III combat and sword work, which clearly benefited from the work of fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet.
A final added plus: As in the production of “Don Giovanni” we attended, the gods of thunder once again intervened in “Roméo et Juliette” at just the right time, with an ominous drumroll of thunder rolling across the evening desert sky as Shakespeare’s (and Gounod’s) tragic young lovers breathed their last.
Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Tickets and information: Season (5 opera) packages may still be available. Single ticket prices for each opera this season range from $32-$225. All operas this month begin at 8 p.m., and the 2016 season concludes on August 26, 2016. For more complete information including directions, individual performance dates and tickets, visit the Santa Fe Opera site here, or call the Box Office Monday through Saturday (in season) between 9 and five Mountain Daylight Time at 505-986-5900 (local) or 800-280-4654.
Additional notes: If you haven’t attended the opera here before, watch the skies, bring an umbrella when appropriate and, for the ladies in particular, include an extra wrap. Santa Fe and environs may be in the desert, but it can cool off considerably in the evening. As it’s “monsoon season” in the American southwest, the weather can also get surprisingly stormy in late afternoons and early evenings.